In the late 1990s, I saw the famed New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier speak on Kaddish, his exploration of the Jewish prayer of mourning in the wake of his own father’s death. Both the book and the lecture wove elements of history, linguistics, philosophy, textual analysis and – above all – personal experience in ways that seemed quite daring.
I remember thinking, “Can you do that?” Sure, Wieseltier was in a league of his own – brilliant, well-read, an extraordinary researcher and storyteller, and amazingly prolific. But he came to his book topic out of personal interest, not long-held expertise. And he used his own feelings and observations as legitimate sources in exploring the importance of that topic, not simply as a point of explanation in the introduction, a way to draw-in the reluctant reader. It was the first time that I had read a solid work of history and philosophy that was also a personal wrestling, a personal reckoning – and that celebrated rather than apologizing for that fact.
I thought about Kaddish as news came last week that Wieseltier was joining the Brookings Institution, the venerable Washington, DC think tank as the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy. (Wieseltier studied at Oxford under Berlin, one of the foremost political theorists, historians and philosophers of the twentieth century.) Wieseltier left the New Republic last fall along with a number of other senior editors in a fascinating and very public shakeup spurred by debates over many of the media questions of our age (new v. old media, prestige purchases by internet entrepreneurs, the value of “disruption”, monetization of media “investments”, citizen journalism, etc.).
So Wieseltier was available, even with a new gig at the Atlantic. But why Brookings? On the face of it, it seems an odd fit. Wieseltier will be the ultimate humanist at a public policy think tank concerned with such topics as wages, health care outcomes, fiscal policy, climate change and foreign policy, and that – for the most part – employs very different methodologies than Wieseltier. After all, the questions of if and how to use quantitative data in business decisions was an area of intense conflict during Wieseltier’s last years at the New Republic.
The question is, what can Wieseltier contribute to Brookings’ work? The President of the Brookings Institution put it this way in the organization’s announcement of the appointment: “With [Wieseltier’s] arrival, Brookings will have a fresh perspective and deep-rooted expertise on the intersection between culture and public policy, thereby bringing a new dimension to our mission.” That is, policy work isn’t just the domain of social scientists. Whether they involve parsing texts or reflecting on the historical significance of cultural trends, the methodologies employed by humanities scholars such as Wieseltier are rigorous and important and offer a new way of understanding current problems.
Time will tell what Wieseltier’s contributions at Brookings will involve, or whether his appointment signals a new chapter about the role the humanities play in areas long-dominated by social scientists. But when I think of what is possible for Wieseltier in his new position, I keep returning to my initial impressions of Kaddish. Here was a book that answered questions I hadn’t even thought to ask, questions about readers’ relationship to texts, the place of the writer as an authority, the meaning of ritual and text and history through the ages.
“Can you do that?” I wondered at the time. Yes, you can. And well you should.
Image: Marc Chagall, La Création de l’homme, 1956-8, Musee National Marc Chagall, Nice, France, via Jon Himoff.